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Tigers catchers have been among American League’s best in 2017

James McCann and Alex Avila have been crucial contributors to the Tigers’ offense.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What if I told you the Detroit Tigers had the best catcher in the American League? You would understandably be skeptical, or just laugh at me, and you’d be right to. The Tigers do not, in fact, have the best catcher in the American League. But the combined contributions of James McCann and Alex Avila are something close to that.

Heading into the 2017 season, few would have considered the Tigers’ catching tandem a major area of strength, but that’s exactly what it has been so far. Last year, Tigers catchers collectively ranked 11th in the American League according to fWAR; the 66 wRC+ posted by Tigers catchers was the 3rd worst score in the AL. James McCann posted a 124 wRC+ against left-handed pitchers, but an abysmal 34(!!!) wRC+ against right-handed pitchers. With a 100 wRC+ score representing league average, McCann was 66 points below average. That’s bad. Like, NL pitcher bad.

McCann hit a career high 12 home runs, but posted a weak .272 on-base percentage while striking out 29.2 percent of the time. Backup catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia contributed 12 home runs of his own, including some very clutch ones in the early part of the season, but his ultimate results left a lot to be desired: just a 69 wRC+ and a 35.6 percent strikeout rate.

2016 AL Catcher Stats

Team wRC+ WAR
Team wRC+ WAR
Yankees 113 4.4
Rangers 101 3.5
Astros 98 3.2
Royals 92 2.8
Mariners 96 2.5
Red Sox 79 2.2
Athletics 90 2.2
Angels 74 1.2
Blue Jays 81 1.2
White Sox 76 0.8
Tigers 66 0.7
Orioles 67 0.7
Twins 75 0.5
Rays 65 -0.1
Indians 46 -0.7
via Fangraphs

It was reasonable to feel pessimistic about Detroit’s catching situation heading in to 2017. James McCann’s offensive performance in 2016 was disappointing, and Alex Avila played less than 60 games last year as the back-up catcher for the White Sox. Avila, a free-agent signing in the off-season, had spurts of offensive success in the past, but nothing particularly sustainable since his 2011 campaign. Fangraphs’ preseason positional power rankings for catchers put the Tigers firmly in the middle of the pack, predicting solid defense but below-average offense from Tigers backstops.

So far in 2017 Tigers catchers have defied these gloomy projections, by many metrics. Take these numbers with a grain of salt because of the small sample size we are dealing with, but the early returns are encouraging. According to Baseball Reference’s WAR formula, Tigers catchers have been great, and are ranked in the upper half of AL teams. Using this metric, Avila and McCann have accumulated 0.9 bWAR, good for third place, trailing only the catchers of the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers.

Fangraphs is even more high on McCann and Avila’s hot start.

2017 AL Catcher Stats

Team HR wRC+ WAR
Team HR wRC+ WAR
Tigers 11 149 1.5
Rangers 7 123 1.3
Astros 8 133 1.2
Royals 8 116 0.8
Twins 3 88 0.7
Red Sox 4 104 0.5
Orioles 2 85 0.5
Rays 3 64 0.4
Angels 1 77 0.4
White Sox 3 79 0.3
Indians 2 73 0.2
Yankees 4 79 0
Athletics 2 52 -0.2
Blue Jays 3 44 -0.5
Mariners 0 29 -0.5
Through May 12th, 2017 via Fangraphs

This data, along with other eye-popping stats showing McCann and Avila’s great start, can be found here. Tigers catchers are currently in first place using fWAR; they have hit the most home runs; they have the second-most runs batted in; they have the second-best walk rate (BB%); the best isolated power percentage (ISO); the second-best on-base percentage (OBP); the best slugging percentage (SLG); the best weighted-on-base-average (wOBA); and the best wRC+.

McCann and Avila are also atop Fangraphs’ hard-hit rate leaderboard, suggesting that they have earned much of this success.

2017 Hard Hit Percentage Leaders, AL Catchers

Name Team Hard%
Name Team Hard%
Alex Avila Tigers 55.9 %
James McCann Tigers 42.1 %
Sandy Leon Red Sox 36.8 %
Brian McCann Astros 32.5 %
Russell Martin Blue Jays 29.2 %
Jason Castro Twins 35.2 %
Salvador Perez Royals 40.4 %
Austin Romine Yankees 23.6 %
Evan Gattis Astros 35.6 %
Yan Gomes Indians 38.6 %
Jonathan Lucroy Rangers 21.2 %
Derek Norris Rays 33.8 %
Martin Maldonado Angels 23.0 %
Welington Castillo Orioles 41.5 %
Stephen Vogt Athletics 19.7 %
Mike Zunino Mariners 35.7 %
Omar Narvaez White Sox 16.3 %
Minimum 60 Plate Appearances, though May 12th, 2017 via Fangraphs

Notably, McCann has made some small but important adjustments to his game. His strikeout percentage is still very high at 23.3 percent, but that number represents a roughly 6 percent improvement over his rate from last year. It’s still very early, but in 86 plate appearances so far in 2017, his walk rate (BB%) is up to 13 percent, a good improvement over last year’s 6.2 percent number. Barring injury, this should be McCann’s first 20 home run season. Time will tell if these improvements can be sustained.

When healthy, the Tigers have a deep lineup. They don’t need all-star production from catcher to succeed, as long as their big bats are going. But so far in the 2017 season, “all-stars” is exactly what James McCann and Alex Avila have been. Their individual statistics are impressive, but considered cumulatively, McCann and Avila have been arguably the best catching duo in the American League so far.

Not bad, given the lukewarm expectations they had coming into the season. Tigers fans should be very satisfied with these numbers; McCann and Avila have thus far exceeded expectations. With J.D. Martinez injured, Victor Martinez occasionally ineffective, and Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, and Jose Iglesias each missing several games because of injuries, the Tigers offense has stayed afloat thanks to the prolific power numbers of McCann and Avila. They will both likely regress (McCann’s .286 ISO doesn’t look sustainable, nor does Avila’s .467 BABIP), but by the time they do, the Tigers should be getting more consistent contributions from the rest of their key offensive players.

The acquisition of Avila has paid dividends for the Tigers so far; his great numbers against right-handed pitchers has allowed manager Brad Ausmus to protect McCann from becoming over-exposed to righties. The best way to build upon McCann and Avila’s strong starts would be to continue to take advantage of favorable platoon match-ups, by playing McCann against lefties while giving Avila frequent starts against righties. Things haven’t been all rosy for Tigers catchers - they’ve cost their pitching staff almost 5 runs via poor framing according to Baseball Prospectus - but offensively speaking, McCann and Avila have been perhaps the most unexpected and pleasant surprise of the 2017 Detroit Tigers.